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Firefighter Decision Making

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By John Morse

There are a lot of decisions that need to be made by firefighters during a shift.  Sure there are company officers, shift commanders and Chief officers, but there are decisions to be made by everyone on the shift.  Some decisions are critical, and some have very little time to think about consequences. With a lot on the line and not much time to think, what is the process that firefighters use to make the right choice?

The most common decisions are made on routine calls by firefighters.  Even when not in charge there are decisions that need to be made by firefighters on every call.  A company officer might direct what needs to be accomplished but the how to get it done is often left to the discretion of one or two firefighters.  An example of this might be a call for a car fire, where the company officer will order a specific hose line be pulled to extinguish the fire.  The firefighter who takes the nozzle will usually decide how he would like to attack the fire.  I’m sure there are some officers out there that will micro manage every situation and not leave any decisions to anyone, but most officers I have seen are not that controlling.

In more serious, larger incidents decisions that require more manpower, there are more decisions to be made by company officers.  The most critical decision at any incident happens within the first couple minutes after arrival, and is often made by the company officer before any chief officers arrive.  The initial size up made by the first arriving officer controls the flow of the whole incident.  A bad game plan from the start means disaster.  A good aggressive game plan that is put into play immediately upon arrival has a better outcome.

As incidents get even bigger, with multiple companies and multiple departments, incident commanders and chief officers come into play with strategic and logistical decisions.  Managing large numbers of firefighters and apparatus is a different kind of decision making.  Often a group of officers will get together and decide strategies, tactics, and how much manpower is needed to handle a situation.  These decisions often have more time to think about options and aren’t really the same instinct based decisions made by company officers and firefighters.

The critical decisions made with no discretionary time come from principles that are ground into us from our training, and our experience.  We train more than anyone outside the fire service would ever imagine.  That training covers a wide range of topics and each of these training exercises measures the benefits, options and shortcomings of each tactic. We make the decisions in training so that when the time comes that decision is automatic.  A crew that works together for a long time enjoys knowing what tactics to expect, and how each person will perform in specific situations.

The other thing we rely on to make our decision is or experience.  Hopefully you won’t have to deal with new people getting promoted too fast, because there is no replacement for fireground experience. What we see as new firefighters follows us through our career.  Successful strategies that we witness will be what we call upon when it is our turn to make those decisions.  The next time you make a critical decision take a minute to think about what you used to make that decision.  Chances are it will be your experience, and your training.

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